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‘Everyone at risk’ as coronavirus cases tick up among migrants and refugees sheltering in Greece

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A Syrian family prepares to huddle down by a fire out of the wind while children gather branches to burn, as they deliberate how to get home after a failed crossing attempt at the Edirne border with Greece. ©IOM/Emrah Özesen

With 23 migrants at an open accommodation site in central Greece testing positive for COVID-19, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) sounded the alarm on Thursday over conditions in crowded reception centres on five Greek islands where the virus risks taking hold.

The Ritsona site – a one-hour drive from Athens – about 75 kilometres away – is one of 30 facilities on the Greek mainland that accommodate a total of more than 25,000 people.

The authorities have put it under quarantine for the next 14 days after the first confirmed COVID-19 case emerged on Tuesday.  Its residents, including 252 unaccompanied children, have been advised to remain in their accommodation as contract tracing and further testing continues.

Equal access to services is critical

“Everyone is at risk. Migrants and refugees in Greece are susceptible to the virus as much as the Greek community,” said Gianluca Rocco, Chief of IOM’s Mission in Greece.

“It is critical that everyone, including migrant and refugees on the mainland and the islands, are ensured equal access to health services, including prevention, testing and treatment, especially in times like these,” Mr. Rocco said.  

“Immediate inclusion of all migrants in the national response to COVID-19 is not only a humanitarian measure, but essential to public health policy in Greece.”

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus on the Greek maintain is meanwhile raising concern for migrants in reception and identification centres on five Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, IOM said in a statement.

In those locations, overpopulation makes it extremely difficult to take necessary precautions, such as social distancing and vigilant hygiene, IOM said, adding that it stands ready to help relocate residents to the mainland.

Camps on Greek islands must be decongested

“The threat of COVID-19 makes it even more urgent to decongest the camps on the islands,” Mr. Rocco said.  “IOM is contributing to these efforts with the creation of new accommodation arrangements on the mainland.”

IOM is also establishing a temporary voluntary return mechanism on the five islands for those who decide to return to their home countries, in collaboration with the European Commission and Greek authorities.  The implementation and duration of that programme will be adjusted in line with virus-related measures taken by States, such as the closure of airports or other travel restrictions.

“This is, however, not an easy task and needs further measures and support from European Union member States,” Mr. Rocco said, renewing IOM’s call for European solidarity with Greece for the urgent relocation of unaccompanied children and other migrants to European countries willing to share responsibility.

With funding from the European Union, the IOM is present in all 30 open accommodation facilities on the Greek mainland, distributing cleansers and soaps to all residents.  It is also translating and handing out guidance on how refugees and migrants can best guard against infection.

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Human Rights

Pandemic curbs trend towards ever-increasing migration

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photo © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

Travel restrictions and other curbs to movement put in place in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, have put a significant dent in migration figures, but the overall trend shows 100 million more people living outside their countries of origin in 2020, compared to the year 2000, a new UN report revealed on Friday.

‘Migration is part of today’s world’

International Migration 2020 Highlights, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), shows that the pandemic may have slowed migration flows by around two million people last year, cutting the annual growth expected since mid-2019 by around 27 per cent.

Since the year 2000, however, there has been a major increase in migration. That year some 173 million people lived outside of their countries of origin. Twenty years later, that figure had risen to 281 million.

In a statement, Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said “The report affirms that migration is a part of today’s globalized world and shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the livelihoods of millions of migrants and their families, and undermined progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Less money sent home

The economic crisis that following in the wake of the pandemic has had a major impact on remittances, the money migrants send home to their countries of origin. The World Bank projects that remittances sent back to low- and middle-income countries may see a $78 billion dip, around 14 per cent of the total amount.

This will negatively affect the livelihoods of millions of migrants and their families, especially in those countries with a big diaspora. India, for example, has the largest diaspora in the world: 18 million people born in India live outside the country. Other nations with significant diasporas include Mexico, the Russian Federation (11 million each), China (10 million) and Syria (eight million).

US and Germany top destinations

Unsurprisingly, high income countries are the most coveted destinations for migrants. The US takes the top spot with 51 million migrants hosted in 2020.

Germany hosted the second largest number of migrants worldwide, at around 16 million, followed by Saudi Arabia (13 million), the Russian Federation (12 million) and the United Kingdom (nine million).

Many migrants do not travel far, however. Nearly half of them remain in the region from which they originated. For example, in Europe 70 per cent of migrants come from another European country. Similarly, some 63 per cent of migrants in sub-Saharan Africa come from a country in the same region.

Most refugees in lower income countries

Contrary to some perceptions, the vast majority of refugees, around 80 per cent, are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, and constitute some 12 per cent of all international migrants.

The number of refugees is rising faster than voluntary migration: the number of people forced to leave home due to conflict, crises, persecution, violence or human rights violations has doubled from 17 to 34 million since the beginning of the 21st Century.

In recognition of the need to better manage migration, the General Assembly has adopted several landmark agreements, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. DESA says that around 60 countries have begun to adopt measures to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration.

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Africa Today

CAR: Displacement reaches 120,000 amid worsening election violence

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Poll workers carry ballot boxes during the 27 December 2020 presidential elections in the Central African Republic. MINUSCA/Leonel Grothe

“Worsening” election violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has forced 120,000 people from their homes, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday. 

In an appeal for an immediate end to all bloodshed – which has included deadly clashes with UN peacekeepers – UNHCR also said that mass displacement has continued outside the country since the 27 December Presidential poll, reversing a trend of people returning to CAR in recent years. 

“What is clear is the situation has evolved, it has worsened, we have seen that the number of refugees has doubled in just one week”, said spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, during a scheduled press briefing in Geneva. 

Despite attempts by rebel groups to obstruct presidential and legislative elections, on 27 December, nearly two million Central Africans successfully cast their votes. 

UNHCR and partners in CAR “are gathering reports of abuses by armed groups, including of sexual violence, attacks on voters and pillaging”, Mr. Cheshirkov continued, underscoring the agency’s call “for an immediate return of all parties to meaningful dialogue and progress towards peace”. 

“We were reporting 30,000 refugees last Friday, today it’s already 60,000, and much of that is the increase we’ve seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This is coming with reports of intensified violence, people are being forced to move from their home and the situation has not calmed down for the moment.” 

‘Fear and dread’ 

Echoing concerns for the deteriorating situation, the UN-appointed independent rights expert for CAR called on Friday for the arrest and prosecution of all those “who continue to fuel violence” there. 

Because of them, the country’s people live in “fear and dread”, said Yao Agbetse, before deploring the fact that Central Africans “were unable to exercise their right to vote and that many were victims of torture or ill-treatment and death threats for exercising their right to vote in the first round of elections”.  

Calling out the so-called Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), Mr Agbetse alleged that the group  had “obstructed the country’s electoral campaign in December, prevented the deployment of election materials, disrupted the mobilisation of voters to carry out their democratic right and burned polling stations”. 

The CPC had also recruited children for its work, the rights expert maintained, “a crime under international law”. 

Several localities were targeted, including Kaga Bandoro, Bossangoa, Batangafo, Bozoum, Bocaranga, Koui, Carnot “and other locations in the centre, west, and east of the country”, along with the capital, Bangui on 13 January, said the rights expert, who reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.   

In his statement, Mr Agbetse noted that CAR’s “already fragile humanitarian situation” had worsened, with “more than half of the population in vital need of humanitarian assistance”.  

Prices soaring 

The premises of some humanitarian organisations had been ransacked, he added, while basic necessities “are becoming scarcer and their prices are soaring in Bangui because of insecurity on the supply routes to the capital”. 

Today, schools and training centres are closed outside the capital “and pastoralists and farmers can no longer carry out their activities because of insecurity and fear. Ultimately, food insecurity and extreme poverty are likely to worsen,” Mr. Agbetse said. 

10,000 cross in just 24 hours 

On Wednesday alone, 10,000 people crossed the Ubangui river that separates the two countries, UNHCR’s Mr. Cheshirkov said. 

He added that in addition to the 50,000 refugees in DRC, another 9,000 have reached Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo in the past month. 

In an appeal for funds, the spokesperson said the inaccessible terrain and poor infrastructure along the Ubangui river where people have sheltered, has complicated aid access. 

“UNHCR was already seeking $151.5 million this year to respond to the CAR situation. The needs of the recently displaced Central Africans are mounting, and we will soon face a substantial funding shortfall,” Mr. Cheshirkov explained 

Inside the Central African Republic, another 58,000 people remain displaced.

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Africa Today

Ethiopia: Safe access and swift action needed for refugees in Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

The head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday expressed his deep concern over the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including its impact on Eritrean refugees hosted there. 

The conflict between the Ethiopian Government and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, when the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive after rebels attacked a federal army base. Government forces reported that the region had been secured at the end of November, but TPLF resistance has continued amid accusations of extrajudicial killings and rights abuses. 

Despite some positive developments in accessing and assisting vulnerable populations, since the start of the Government operation, UNHCR’s repeated requests to access the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps have gone unanswered. 

“I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “They have been without any aid for many weeks”.  

UNHCR continues to receive many reliable reports and first-hand accounts of ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, such as killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea, said Mr. Grandi. 

Moreover, the agency has learned of additional military incursions over the last 10 days that are consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing new fires and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps.  

“These are concrete indications of major violations of international law”, the High Commissioner spelled out. 

Doubly distressed 

Ethiopia has long given refuge to people fleeing conflict and persecution.  

The federal Government has provided assurances of measures are to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.  

“I have impressed upon the Ethiopian leadership, the urgency of ensuring the protection of refugees, preventing forced return and keeping refugee camps safe from attacks and other threats from armed actors”, said Mr. Grandi.  

Equally distressing, he said, is that UNHCR teams have been unable to assist the thousands of Eritrean refugees who continue to flee the camps in search of safety and support.  

“Refugees arriving on foot to Shire town in Tigray are emaciated, begging for aid that is not available”, recounted the High Commissioner.  

Against the backdrop that refugees who had reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will, he reiterated the UN-wide call for “full and unimpeded access” to explore “all options to safely provide desperately needed assistance”. 

Unwavering commitment 

In line with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality, UNHCR stands committed to work with the Ethiopian Government in protecting and assisting those forced to flee.  

“We remain available to seek solutions – together – to the current humanitarian problems in a spirit of collaboration and constructive partnership”, said the UNHCR chief. “Safe access and swift action are needed now to save thousands of lives at risk”.

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